Is there room for the Filipino youth to be politically ambitious?

image1Emman Coronado Peña, youth leader. From his Facebook profile.

Meet Emman.

At 25 years of age, people might expect him to be actively pursuing a financially-profitable career, having graduated from one of the top universities in the country. He might also be expected to be saving up for a quiet and contented life for himself, while helping his relatives in the province experience more comfort than they’ve been used to.

Alas, Emman had other, less selfish plans – plans that did not necessarily meet most people’s expectations. This election year, he decided to embark on something that many other young adults his age feel strongly about but do not necessarily pursue―public office.

The race he decided to join is cruel, unpredictable, and unforgivingly predatory―the local sangguniang bayan contest. At least that is how it actually turned out.

On Easter Sunday, Emman Coronado Peña, a UP Los Baños graduate and a locally-known youth leader died in a bloody ambush that saw one other killed and another gravely wounded. In what is believed to be a politically-motivated death, Emman’s youthful vision for the town of Calauan in Laguna passed away with him. But more crucially for everyone with aspirations like Emman’s, his death is a vivid reminder of the grim and unkind political environment hostile to outsiders like the youth.

'Dreams that cannot be’?*

Emman’s death sends a chilling reminder to young people with political aspirations like his that politics in the country is unkind to those outside established political opportunity structures.This seems counterintuitive, especially because the youth’s role in attaining all the lofty goals enshrined in our Constitution cannot be overstated, if the Youth in Nation Building Act of 1995 (RA 8044) is any indication.

When we think of the youth as the “Bella esperanza de la Patria Mia” (“beautiful hope of the fatherland”, as José Rizal so upliftingly wrote in A la juventud Filipina), we see them as inheriting the critical task of nation-building which involves “civic efficiency, stewardship of natural resources, agricultural and industrial productivity, an understanding of [the country’s] world economic commitments…and participation in structures for policy-making and program implementation to reduce the incidence of poverty and accelerate socioeconomic development”as per the words of RA 8044.

A particular aspect of nation-building that is substantially relevant to Emman’s case and to this year’s elections is the youth’s “participation in structures for policy-making and program implementation”, or their political participation.

In relation to this, COMELEC Chairman Andres Bautista has emphasized the significance of the “youth vote”, saying that a substantial 37% of the total number of all eligible voters (20 million in 55 million) belong to the age bracket 18 to 35. While the data should be of much interest to everyone (and not just youth advocates and campaign strategists) who wants a meaningful outcome from this year’s polls, I believe equal, if not more, attention should be given to what scholars Jennifer Lawless and Richard Fox called the “ultimate” act of political participation: running for public office, and in this context, the political ambition of the youth. As the Inter-Parliamentary Union (IPU) puts it, "Debates on youth participation in politics have traditionally focused more on young people’s role as voters and activists". But a specific focus on the youth's aspirations to run for and hold public office becomes vital especially when, elsewhere, "the presence of young people in elected positions benefits all citizens and not just youth."

Ponder this question for a moment: What if the youth were to run our country? Not just have a voice, a representative, or a stake on political matters and processes but to actually steer the form and content of these political processes? Would that situation be an easy pill to swallow?

Talks of juvenile incompetence aside, it is not hard now to find adolescents like Emman who feel very strongly not just about sociopolitical issues but also their own ability to effect actual change by being in-charge or one of those in-charge. They are politically ambitious. They might as well consider a political career, if not for the logistic difficulties of entering politics in a political environment as lopsided, tumultuous, unforgiving, and potentially deadly as the Philippines.

Granted that the play-pretend scenario I mentioned above is not the ideal (the task of nation-building obviously needs the acumen and indispensable experience of the aged alongside the “creativity, inventive genius and wellspring of enthusiasm and hope” of the young, as RA 8044 puts it), it still matters that the youth are able to participate more meaningfully in a truly open and inclusive political regime without having to fear for their lives. This is critical if they are to contribute, under terms guaranteed by a genuinely democratic society, to the task of nation-building.

Dreaming of a larger political space for the youth

The currently available means for the youth to participate in "structures for policy-making and program implementation" is hampered by inherent limitations that hound the institutions and policies already in place, as well as what I believe is the patent lack in the overall quality of the youth's political participation.

The Sangguniang Kabataan (SK), the youth arm of the local government, for example, is hounded by perceptions that are heartening to neither the SK itself nor to the constituency that it purports to serve. SK leaders are seen to be “incompetent, inefficient, and lacking initiative” and the potential of the SK itself is perceived to be “stunted” and “without real power to implement their desired youth programs”, a study revealed. The 2013 Philippine Youth Development Index Study, on the other hand, further revealed that only 35.2% of the Filipino youth actually participated in SK elections. It remains to be seen whether the SK Reform Act of 2015 will mean any actual improvements to these situations.

Another government-mandated institution, the National Youth Commission (NYC), is inherently limited by its prescribed role as “the sole policy-making coordinating body of all youth-related institutions, programs, projects and activities of the government” (Section 6 of RA 8044, emphasis added). Although the NYC is at the forefront of formulating and initiating policies on the youth, being an agency under the executive department puts it under the mercy of the arduous legislative processes that have proved unfriendly to most meaningful legislations.

Even local candidacy laws which appear very friendly to the youth seem to prove futile for them. Section 39 of the Local Government Code of 1991 states that a person can run as a punong barangay, member of the sangguniang barangay or as city or municipal councilor as young as 18 years old. For the positions of governor, vice-governor, provincial board member, city or municipal mayor and vice-mayor, the age requirement is just 21 years old. Higher up, young people of at least 25 years of age can run for representative of their congressional district. But these are negated by the overall lack of opportunity structures available to young people who are not members of political dynasties.

If the Filipino youth, especially those who aspire to hold public office, are to participate without fear or hesitance in the political processes, our society at-large should, in the words of Jennifer Lawless, “incentivize” the engagement of the youth in politics. This means that, at the very least, the youth should feel the worthwhileness of participating, whether this participation takes the form of active expression of political views on social media, joining political rallies, or embarking on a campaign for public office.

This “incentivization” should start in the school, where formal civic education happens. In this regard, curricular instruments (i.e., subjects and courses) both in basic and higher education seem in place, but whether they actually inculcate knowledge and values about active and meaningful political participation remains largely unknown. Nonetheless, the government and especially the educators themselves should be at the forefront of encouraging the youth to participate, as well giving them the sense that their participation is crucial and consequential to the quality of democracy in the country and to the larger goal of nation-building.

Another important step in incentivizing the youth’s political engagement is by introducing laws that would complement and improve the already existing ones. Specifically, the Philippines could adopt laws that would guarantee seats for the youth in the Lower House and in local government councils of all levels. These seats should have the same powers as regular legislators, and not just token representation. The parliaments of Kenya and Uganda, for example, provide for sure representation for their youth, with two and five seats respectively. This step will not just be about the underrepresentation of youth issues in the legislative agenda. This proposal emanates from the belief that the youth is immensely capable to weigh-in and contribute to policy discussions on issues that are outside their traditional purview.

Political parties, while being some of the most hopeless institutions in Philippine politics, can also play a role in making the participation of the youth in politics more meaningful and worthwhile. Both of the largest parties in the country (Nacionalista and Liberal) have their own youth arms; however, even a cursory look at their websites and social media pages would reveal that these youth arms are being used as mere campaign vehicles. Against all the pessimism as to the likelihood of seeing a favorable outcome, I would like to see political parties actively and conscientiously identify, pool, and support in electoral candidacies promising youth leaders, especially those that do not belong to entrenched dynasties.

Finally, non-government organizations and civil society organizations should focus not just on encouraging the youth to participate in traditional areas such as engagement, activism, and voting, but also on encouraging and supporting them to consider running for public office.

In conclusion, I would like to quote a succinct but salient point from the Youth Participation in National Parliaments 2016 report of the IPU: "The presence of young people in political positions can change attitudes, eroding stereotypes about readiness or fitness to lead, while also encouraging young people to see politics as an arena open to their participation."

Providing room for more substantial participation from the youth and for their political ambition does not only enhance their capacities to champion policy positions that they see as vital to the nation-building process. Moreover, providing the youth with better political opportunities through elective political positions secures the continual consolidation and maturation of the Philippine political regime into a democracy that is more legitimate and more just.

*A line fromClaude-Michel Schönberg’sI Dreamed A Dream, from the musical Les Misérables.

Julius Ryan Umali is a graduate student at the Department of Political Science, University of the Philippines Diliman.